The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention where very concerned about the balance of power in the government they sought to create. In the office of presidency, they were worried from past experience with England’s king that a single person at the head of government may take too much power and become a tyrant. However, they were also aware that legislatures with too much power could also be oppressive. Thus they sought to divide power between the branches, so that none had too much, and they incorporated a system of limits on each branch of government by the others. Thus, explained James Madison in Federalist 51, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there have been many battles between the branches of government over the scope of their respective powers. One such battle concerns the power to conduct war.


This activity has students participate in a scored discussion of the following controversial question:

  • How much power should a president have in order to protect the nation in wartime?

As an introduction to the scored discussion, students brainstorm the advantages and disadvantages of having either the executive or legislative branch of government control war powers exclusively, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of shared control over war powers. Students can use the following handout, Chart: Advantages and Disadvantages of Location of War Powers, to organize their initial thoughts on the issue.

Before tackling the reading material, students may want to lay out an initial position with regard to the amount of power a president should have in wartime. Such a position could be written on this continuum worksheet or in the students’ notebooks and changed as the student gains more information.

Students should read and take notes on all material listed below to prepare for the scored discussion:

Once students have completed the readings, the scored discussion can take place.

After the scored discussion is finished, students should again note their position on the continuum on how much power a president should have in times of war, in particular explaining any differences in their opinion from before the scored discussion.